Without a shot yet fired, the Persian Gulf buildup has cost the lives of at least 81 U.S. servicemen -- more than triple the casualties incurred during combat in the Panama invasion.
The capsizing of a ferry filled with U.S. sailors returning to their ship from shore leave Saturday accounted for 20 of that total -- the worst single accident of the four-month Operation Desert Shield.
The tragedy is likely to raise anew questions about the cost in lives already paid in this operation. Prior to Saturday, military officials and analysts contended that the safety record of Desert Shield has been relatively good. The loss of life has been low, they said, considering the frenzy of activity and conditions in the gulf.
"Not one death is acceptable. But based on the operational tempo and the size of the operation, we feel it's going well," Lt. Col. Brian McWilliams of the Army Safety Center in Fort Rucker, Ala., said last week.
"The death rate is certainly lower than we experienced even in many peacetime operations," said Jim Blackwell, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A total of seven air crashes have claimed 31 lives. The toll was swelled by the ferry accident, a shipboard boiler-room accident, vehicle accidents and death from natural causes.
Pentagon spokesmen say there is no statistical standard of "acceptable" deaths. But they suggest comparing the casualty toll of Desert Shield with the 1,597 non-combat deaths in the military during 1989. Broken down by the average troop strength, the casualty rate that year was 6.2 per month per 100,000 troops. A similar breakdown of the Persian Gulf deaths would yield 7.6 deaths per month per 100,000 troops.
Pentagon officials are gratified that there have not been more accidents with the intense nighttime training, the mass movement of so much heavy equipment, and the strange and hostile environment.
"When you take into consideration where we are, the type of terrain, the arduous conditions, the heightened sense of urgency, and the dangerousness of what we are doing, I think our safety record is good," Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Wagner, a Pentagon spokesman, said last week.
But the Air Force did order a 24-hour halt in flying to review safety procedures after a spate of air crashes in October. Pilots were adapting to night-vision devices and a trackless desert terrain that was particularly disorienting at night.
The second-worst accident of the gulf buildup was the crash Aug. 28 of a giant C-5A transport plane as it took off from Germany for the gulf.
Thirteen died in that crash, most of them Texas reservists. On Oct. 30, a steam line ruptured in the boiler room of the USS Iwo Jima in the gulf. Ten sailors died.
Ten servicemen have died in separate motor vehicle accidents, in peacetime usually the biggest killer of soldiers. Some vehicle accidents in Saudi Arabia were caused by the terrain, as vehicles overturned in the desert sand. Others resulted from the fact that the vehicles were traveling at night, sometimes with only the narrow slits of night lights for illumination.
But the vehicle accident rate is "probably safer than on many interstate highways," said Mr. Blackwell. The rate is aided by the fact that servicemen are not driving personal vehicles and alcohol is forbidden in Saudi Arabia.
Five servicemen have died of natural causes